Tuesday, March 8, 2011

AL’s Weekly Blog Post #7: The Society of Control: A Theoretical Perambulation on the Politics of the Postmodern


1984-movie-big-brotherIn class and in our readings over the past weeks, we have been examining the genre of cyberpunk, how it depicts the posthuman, and how it problematizes traditional, liberal humanist conceptualizations of  identity, reality, and the human.  But we have only scratched the surface of tumblr_lg80jdPd9O1qfvw54o1_400another significant aspect of cyberpunk: its depiction of the control society.  When I mention the words “control society,” you may picture the dystopian, totalitarian worlds of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1921), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), Ayn Rand’s Anthem (1938), George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953; and Francois Truffaut’s classic 1966 film adaptation), Kurt Vonnegutt’s “Harrison Bergeron” (1961), Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962), George Lucas’s THX-1138 (1971), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), etc.  But, as I will attempt to explain in this posting, these film’s power structures prove to be diametrically opposed to the new, postmodern regime of power structure that Gilles Deleuze terms “the society of control.” 

Such works represent one kind of dystopianism, but they are an old style of dystopia—in essence, they represent commentaries upon the totalitarian states of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Fahrenheit451_QRussia.  They understand surveillance, but they do not foresee the slow spread of computerization that began with World War II.  Next came the quiet evolution of computer networks that began in the 1960s, picked up steam in the 90s, and achieved global hegemony by the beginning of the 21st century.  In essence, Orwellian-style dystopias signify a modern regime of power, but we live in a postmodern world, a world that has moved beyond the limited scope of a disciplinary paradigm of power and into the society of control.

MichelIn his classic study Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975), French philosopher/historian Michel Foucault lays out the concept of the disciplinary society, biopolitics, and biopower.  While the book is ostensibly an examination of the rise of the modern penal system in the 18th Century, it is –like all of Foucault’s historical studies—also a philosophical reflection upon the current world that uses history as a mirror for our own times.  Foucault argues that a change takes place in the nature of power during the 18th century—it slowly transforms from alarge.panopticon society of sovereignty in which punishment was a public spectacle to the disciplinary society in which the prison provides the structuring principle for a variety of public institutions.  In the sovereign society, the criminal was publically tortured as punishment—his crimes were literally inscribed on his body in a manner akin to the machine in Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” (1914).  Along with the Enlightenment and the advent of modernity in 250px-Panopticonthe 18th Century, power undergoes a consequent metamorphosis: it ceases to privilege public torture and instead focuses upon confinement and surveillance.  Discipline represents a new technology of power that seeks to transform subjects into docile bodies.  For Foucault, the paradigmatic image of discipline is the hypothetical prison that Jeremy Bentham envisioned called the panopticon—see pictures above.  The panopticon is a circular prison with a guard tower in the center of the circle.  The panopticon is 41KTXKGRZRL._SL500_SL160_designed so that a guard in the tower can see into every catch at once, but the prisoners remain incapable of seeing if anyone is in the tower—big brother is literally watching you!  Benthem’s design was meant to be a cheaper prison system because it required fewer guards.  But Foucault sees a different side of it because he understands that the guards are not actually required—because they never know if a guard is present, they constantly behave because they have internalized discipline: they have become docile bodies.  But discipline does not end at the borders of the prison; instead, it migrates out and becomes the modern paradigm of power.  Schools, hospitals, factories, barracks, etc.  all function by the rule of disciple—they all seek to inculcate the subject with the principles of discipline.  They transforms us into docile bodies.  This is the birth of auschwitz2biopower, of power focused upon the control, manipulation, and discipline of the body.  As Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, Roberto Esposito, and others argue, biopower reaches its darkest expression in Nazi Germany where the concetration camps reduce humankind to what Agamben calls “bare life”—the subject becomes nothing more than a body that must be disciplined to engage with systems of order.  But biopower does not end with the fall of the Third Reich and the advent of the postmodern era.  Power slowly begins to undergo another epistemic shift that will make the rule of biopower more subtle, insidious, and potentially indestructible. 


deleuzeIn his lectures at the College-de-France, Foucault suggests that we are moving into new, non-disciplinary regimes of power.  French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, a contemporary of Foucault’s, takes this suggestion and it develops it in some of his final essays before his suicide.  Deleuze takes the term “control” from the novels of William S. Burroughs, which faithful readers of this blog will recognize as a recurring theme, and he applies it to this newly emergent, postmodern paradigm of power.  Deleuze contends that each type of society has a particular kind of machine associated with it.  The sovereign society can be associatedh_medieval_clock with some of the most simple kinds of machines: levers, pulleys, clocks, etc.  As Lewis Mumford points out in Technics and Civilization, clocks were invented by monks in the Middle Ages to organize their days, and Mumford further argues that the introduction of certain kinds of machines represents a shift in the ideology and epistemology of society.  Deleuze follows similar reasoning when he proposes that the disciplinary society represents a move to thermodynamic machines and that the control society is signified by the introduction of computers.  In the control society, power stops being concentrated in particular sites of confinement and moves out to permeate society in a systemic fashion.  The control still utilizes surveillance and other methodologies developed in the disciplinary society, but it controls through the illusion of freedom.  Where as the disciplinary society functioned with signatures, the control society is built upon codes and passwords.  Education, medicine, etc. become big business in the postmodern society of control.  Furthermore, “individuals become ‘dividuals,’ and masses become samples, data, markets, or ‘banks’” (180).  Capitalism ceases to be about production and instead becomes about metaproduction; that is, it concerns itself less with buying raw materials and selling finished products.  Instead, it seeks to sell services and buy activities—it concerns itself primarily with marketing and advertising.  Against this backdrop, the individual becomes a mere dividual, a number in a databank housing debt and credit information.  As minority_report_automated_drivingDeleuze states, “Man is no longer a man confined but a man in debt” (181). This system of control may not seem insidious at first—it may lack the traumatic drama and aggressiveness of Nazi Germany, but its power remains just as potent if not more so because it maintains the illusion of freedom while practicing absolute control.  As Deleuze explains, “Control is not discipline.  You do not confine people with highways.  But by making highways, you multiply the means of control.  I am not saying this is the only aim of highways, but people can travel infinitely and ‘freely’ without being confined while beingGPS_Grid_Baja_Mexico perfectly controlled.  That is our future” (322).  Such aspects of society as highways seem liberatory, but they in fact prescribe certain lines of travel and commerce—they order our daily reality on a fundamental level, and this order can always be changed with roadblocks and other methods in order to constrict subject behavior.  Deleuze would no doubt have seen the advent of cheap, mass market GPS devices as the perfect example both of how the virtually of computers actualizes itself in the real world and how highway systems always already represent only a façade of freedom.


An interesting Avant-Garde video interpretation of William S. Burroughs’s story “Ah Pook is Here” in which Burroughs states “Control is controlled by its need for control.” The video features one of Burroughs’s readings of the story.


564-204aCertain theorists believe that the computerization of society actually harbors utopian potential as a means of promoting communication and inciting global revolution.  Italian neo-Marxist critic Antonio Negri and American philosopher Michael Hardt have co-authored a trilogy of 387px-Communist-manifestopolitical studies (Empire [2000], Multitude [2004], and Commonwealth [2009]) that attempt to define the postmodern, global control society and to envision the possibility of a revolution akin to the one Marx and Engels outline in The Communist Manifesto (1848).  In fact, in Empire, Hardt and Negri make it clear that they believe themselves to be writing a postmodern version of Marx’s Grundrisse (1858), his notebooks that later became Das Kapital (1867, 1885, 1894).  To fully understand Hardt and Negri, one must first grasp the Hegelian nature of Marx’s dialectical materialism. 

The dialectic has remained a staple of philosophical thought since Plato.  In this classic model of the dialectic, two opposing viewpoints engage in a dialogue that leads them towards truth  or at least  some more complex understanding of the topic—this is exemplified in the dialogues of Plato.  The term dialectic undergoes something of a transformation in the hands of Hegel, but it still maintains the basic structure of two opposing forces striving towards something higher.  Hegel’s dialectic was a logical model that he applied to everything from formal logic to chemical reactions to historical processes.  It is a three-part model driven by the force of negation.  Many conceive of the three steps as Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis, but Hegel himself never uses these terms.  Instead, Hegel often uses the terms Abstract-Negative-Concrete or Immediate-Mediated-hegelConcrete.  One of the most basic versions of the dialectic is the act of recognition.  Hegel argues that recognition serves as the basis of our identities and desires as well as our interactions with others. For Hegel, in the Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), a subject cannot become self-conscious (or even become a subject) until s/he has been recognized (or acknowledged) by an other: “self-consciousness exists in and for itself, and by the fact, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged” (§178). To become an individual, one must first engage with an other who recognizes him/her as an entity separate from all other entities and as an entity with its own consciousness and desires. As Alexandre Kojève explains in his220px-PhG_Title004 study of Hegel’s Phenomenlogy of Spirit, recognition provides the foundation for the movement from being a mere biological entity to being a full-fledged person: “It is only Desire of such a Recognition (Anerkennung), it is only Action that flows from such a Desire, that creates, realizes, and reveals a human, non-biological I” (40). To become fully human then requires recognition, a satiation of the subject’s desire through his/her recognition of another subject’s desire.  Hence, “the origin of self-awareness lies in desire which will then be complemented by the desire of the other: “when man first experiences desire, when he is hungry…and wants to eat, and when he becomes aware of it, he necessarily becomes aware of himself. Desire is always revealed as my desire, and to reveal desire, one must use the word ‘I’” (Kojève 37). However, at this point the subject still operates at the level of “animal desire,” for “to be human, man must act not for the sake of subjugating a thing, but for the sake of subjugating another Desire (for the thing). The man who desires a thing 00000897_Battle at Jenahumanly acts not so much to possess the thing as to make another recognize his right…to that thing, to make another recognize him as the owner of the thing (Kojève 39-40). To become truly human thus means engaging in the conflict of desires, that is in the dialectical struggle between master and slave. Becoming human then means the recognition of the things one desires as being external to one’s self coupled with the recognition of the other’s desire for the same things, and as Kojève explains “the I of Desire [is nothing] but an emptiness greedy for content,” or, that is, “an absence of Being” (38, 40). Because of this absence, humans enter the Master/Slave dialectic in which they struggle for mastery, which forms the basis of history as well as individual self-consciousness. For Hegel, history is predicated upon the dialectic; it is nothing more than “the history of the Fights and Work that finally ended in the wars of Napoleon and the table on which Hegel wrote the Phenomenology in order to understand bothcontent_berlin_wall those wars and the table” (Kojève 43). History, in the Hegelian sense, therefore “stops at the moment when the difference, the opposition between Master and Slave disappears: at the moment when the master will cease to be Master, because he will no longer have a Slave; and the Slave will cease to be Slave, because he will no longer have a master” (Kojève 43-4). For Hegel, Napoleon’s Battle of Jena provides the final moment of history’s dialectic, its transcendence or sublation (aufhebung) which stops the conflict between opposites that has driven it throughout history: “this completion of history is realized through the dialectical overcoming (Aufheben) of both the Master and the Slave…it is because Hegel hears the sounds of that battle that he can known that History is being completed or has been completed, that—consequently—his conception of the World is a total conception, that his knowledge is an absolute knowledge” (Kojève 44). While Hegel believed Napoleon signaled the end of history and of masters and slaves, such a notion seems blissfully naïve given the procession of events that occurred since Hegel’s fateful writing of the Phenomenology during the Battle of Jena.  Since Hegel, others have cited the end of the Cold War, the 9/11 attacks, etc. as the end of history.   But somehow new oppositions still seem to arise, and Hardt and Negri believe that one final struggle has arisen in the postmodern era: the struggle between Empire and the Multitude.


united-nationsHardt and Negri agree with Deleuze that capitalism and power have moved into a new postmodern, post-disciplinary paradigm of power called control.  They believe the addition of global communication networks like the Internet have allowed the “hegemony of computers,” as Jean-Francois Lyotard terms it, to consolidate its power over the entire globe.  Coupled with this global computerization and its circuits of communication, the fundamental nature of nations has altered in the postmodern world—the modern nation state’s power hasWBP_logo_square_hi_res begun to wane as power becomes more decentralized and more distributed through groups like the U.N., NATO, the World Bank, and the G8 nations as well as the growing power of global corporations.  In other words, Hardt and Negri’s theorization of postmodern power represents virtually the same images of the future that cyberpunk novels generally depict.  They term this new regime of power “Empire,” which should not be confused with modern imperialism or colonialism but instead is meant to signify how power is no longer situated within the confines of any one particular nation.  Empire represents a totalizing power structure, a truly global regime that covers the entire world and eradicates distinctions between inside/outside, center/margin, etc.  Instead, we are all subjects of Empire and control.  We may be more or less privileged than others based on our geographic distribution within Empire’s matrix of control, but we all—everyone on Earth—remain subservient to this overarching power structure.  But, like the spread of capitalism was for Marx and Engels, the rise of Empire does not signify a pure evil because it also gives birth to the potential of the Multitude.  For Hardt and Negri, it is like the pitch-black darkness before the dawn. 

Hardt and Negri claim to disavow dialectical reasoning in favor of a Deleuzian, post-structuralist viewpoint.  However, while they adopt some of Deleuze’s terminology (smooth spaces, control societies, deterritorialization, the rhizome, etc.), they remain tied to Hegel and Marx’s dialectical theories of history.  The control society of Empire has grown out of the circuits of computerization and the fiber-optic cables of global networking.  But this circuitry of control has not just connected nations and economies, it has also connected individuals and changed their ability to communicate and congregate.  Hardt and Negri believe that these channels of communication give rise to what they term the Multitude, a collective of the world’s citizens capable of a united negation of Empire.  Hardt and Negri remain somewhat vague on how the Multitude might coalesce into its global revolutionary form.  They claim it could enact a revolution that would lead to a new, global, truly democratic regime of power, but they again remain vague on how this new society would function.  However, the recent spate of revolutions and demonstrations in Africa and the Middle East might point to how communication and computerization could lead to revolutionary praxis.  After all, a Facebook event page brought 80,000 protestors to one of the demonstrations in Egypt that eventually lead to the downfall of regime that had held power for thirty years.  But does the ever-increasing march of computerization truly contain the potential for utopian revolution as Hardt and Negri suggest or does it merely signal the consolidation of the control’s society power as Deleuze argues?

Ultimately, what these thinkers and the cyberpunk genre point out is how computerization represents a double-edged sword.  On the positive side, it offers new liberatory potentials for the subject: new means of communication, data retrieval, knowledge acquisition, event organization, etc.  But every time we connect to the network, we also insert ourselves further into the society of control—we leave our digital footprints that allow an ever increasing amount of data to be collated about us.  As theorist Steven Shaviro states, “In short, if you’re connected, you’re fucked.”

--Gerald ( “Al”) Miller


Deleuze, Gilles. “Postscript on Control Societies.” Negotiations 1972-1990. 1990. Trans. Martin Joughin. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995. 177-82.

------. “What is the Creative Act?” 1987. Two Regimes of Madness: Texts and Interviews 1975-1995. Ed. David Lapoujade. Trans. Ames Hodges and Mike Taormina. New York and Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2006. 312-24.

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard UP, 2000.

------. Multitude. New York: Penguin, 2004.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Phenomenology of Spirit. 1807. Trans. A.V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977.

Kojève, Alexandre. Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit. Ed. Allan Bloom. Trans. James H. Nichols, Jr. Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1969.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. 1979. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Shaviro, Steven. Connected: Or What It Means to Live in the Network Society. Minneapolis and London: U of Minnesota P, 2003.

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